Arts Council Wales
Research and Development Award
‘Men Do Cry: Confronting Emotion Through Picturing Tears.’
In July 2018, I was successful in gaining an Arts Council Wales research and development award. This project, entitled ‘Men Do Cry: Confronting Emotion Through Picturing Tears,’ involved me working in collaboration with Ruthin Craft Centre to investigate the relationship between men, crying and masculinity. The award provided opportunity to develop new work that would explore forms of representation(s) concerning the expression and suppression of male emotion through the most obvious, yet also most enigmatic proof of their emotional lives; tears.
The intention for this work is to make a meaningful contribution to existing actions of multiple organisations in Wales who tackle issues of mental health among men. Recent research from the mental health charity ‘Mind’ cites suppressed male anxiety as one of the UK’s most prevalent mental health problems and claims, “crying is a powerful and proactive way to counteract its adverse effects…established gender attitudes [and] issues such as self-stigmatisation, or the idea that ‘real men don’t cry’, can prevent men from accessing the help that they need.”
This is of particular concern in Wales, where I live. Suicide rates among men have soared to above the UK average, and are now at their highest in more than thirty years. I am not a health care professional, but my ambition is to provide alternative platforms and spaces through which this subject can be encountered and communicated beyond the clinical or helpline environs. It is also to enable others to share the journey of this work and to reveal the thinking and circuitous routes of its development. Making shares an affinity to men who cry; the process of its becoming is often concealed and out of sight. What you will read here is a glimpse of those processes, my thoughts and actions; it chronicles a moment in time when tears could no longer be hidden from view.
There are many bitter-sweet moments in life; and this was one of them. I open the letter which confirms my award from the Arts Council Wales and feel more than a little bit lucky. I anticipate great things; the chance to work on ideas that have simmered for months, if not years. It is simultaneously daunting yet exhilarating too, because it’s important to tell this tale of men who cry. But the next day brings the onset of symptoms that soon take me to hospital where a doctor provides a diagnosis that makes me cry. I begin to wonder if all this talking and writing about tears has actually brought it on, though I dry my eyes when people are close; it is as instinctual as breathing.
Living suddenly becomes dictated by the limitations of ill-health, the demands of treatment and the confines of a hospital bed. I think occasionally about my studio and sewing again, though the business of getting better pushes these thoughts away and makes them seem trivial. A doctor tells me not to think about work, though it is hard not to. The spectre of this project being left unrealised is too dispiriting.
Rather than this project being far away, I soon realise that it is close by. I am in a hospital ward full of men. Many receive very bad news indeed; life is almost at a close, whilst others have to come to terms with a diagnosis that will change life forever. In this ward, with these men, I witness their tears and laughter. I become privy to their anxieties, pleasures, fears and fortitude. It is humbling and a privilege to share this time together. And when I return home, I cannot stop thinking of the people I have met and the conversations that only paused when dawn broke. I think too of holding the hand of a tearful man who refused to cry infront of his Mother.
It is impossible to let go of these people. They fill my head and I constantly wonder if they are alive, and if so, if that life is one they feared living. How these men cried and what their tears revealed about life, love and loss, refuse to leave me; and I am glad of it. I want to hold onto these memories and the emotions that seize my mind when remembering comes. It seems necessary to recall words that were spoken and those which were not, faces that laughed and those which were sometimes creased by fear.
I begin to write, and quickly realise that these words are not just about holding memory; they begin to distil moments of experience. The discipline of writing allows me to make sense of what I have seen, thought and felt. Captured on the page, I have something that feels like a beginning. And remarkably, I find the discipline of embroidery is not incompatible with that of writing. The process of making an idea in fabric and thread begins in a literal and metaphorical tangle. It demands an editing out of anything extraneous in order for a sense of order to be achieved. And my approach to writing is much the same; words initially set down quickly, ideas on a page, that are then edited and literally cut back. Like thread, they give colour, rhythm, image and texture, and as with stitch, I find myself making similar editorial judgements; it is a desire to achieve precision.
Unexpectedly, the process of writing becomes revelatory. As more words are committed to the page, I begin to realise what ideas are constantly circled and the visual memories that accompany them. There is one moment in particular that returns again and again; it is watching the men on the ward as they attempt to sleep. And that sleep often proves to be illusive, despite the body being weary. It is the time when pain is often worse, comfort cannot be found and the mind wrestles with thoughts that bring upset rather than contentment. When sleep eventually comes it can provide welcome release, though sometimes not.
Reading these six short stories (linked from the titles below) may help to explain:
We all wish for sweet dreams, though they rarely come in a hospital ward. It is not the perpetual monitoring of vital signs that disrupts, the constant chatter of voices that whisper, but much too loudly, or the cacophony of alarms that warn something is amiss that frustrates sleep. My neighbour needs the slow waltz and gentle arpeggios of ‘Sailing By,’ to doze. Another needs the words issued by the ‘Maritime and Coastguard Agency,’ because it is warnings of rough seas, calmer waters and squally showers that have always closed his day.
And it is in these moments when tears often come. I hear them sometimes, gentle sobs, or snatched, gasping breaths that often accompany clumsy attempts to hide upset. “You’re not crying are you?” is often asked and the answer is always, defiantly, “No.” Something has gone down the wrong way, a case of red eye that has never cleared up or it’s the tea that does it. All that debris at the bottom of the cup. God knows what they put in it.
For some patients, tears help sleep to come, whilst others are admonished by nurses with flashlights. Those with eyes wide open are urged to try harder, because it is sleep that will make them feel better. I am told that it is no use being up all night and then asleep all day; so I must try harder too. Turning on my side, I slump into the pillow and gaze at the man in the next bed. I watch him sleep and when he wakes, smile and say hello. Sometimes, a smile is returned, though often it is not. And he’s not so good this morning. There’s a tear in his eye; it must be the light in this place. You’d think they’d have better blinds- he says.
I am beginning to feel better. I must be, because one particular story begins to fill my head and I write it down. But this tale will take longer to tell. And I would like to tell you that tale myself.
The writing conjures pictures in my head but I seek them out too; between pages of a book that has long been cherished. ‘A Class Apart: The Private Pictures of Montague Glover,’ contains a selection of photographs taken by Glover throughout his lifetime (1889-1983). His picture taking gives us a glimpse of his enduring relationship with his partner Ralph Hall, and gives full expression to their erotic fantasies.
Out of the many thousands of images that comprise this archive, there are a small number of pictures that depict lovers and friends shown waking, sleeping and slumbering. They are gentle and remarkable, full of tenderness and sometimes sexual energy. I am drawn back to the image as a way in which to explore ideas and look to Glover’s archive as inspiration to begin picture taking.
Working in collaboration with Dewi Lloyd, a sequence of photographs was taken which reference Glover’s work. Mimetic in their intent, the archive images are interspersed with a contemporary bedfellow who is well known to me. He is family and also a friend. We have laughed together, cared for each other and shared moments of sadness and joy. Of late, we have both realised the fragility of life, felt the exhilaration of recovery, dismay when the body is exhausted and the necessity of keeping laughter close when despair seems all around. These pictures capture moments of his waking and sleeping. They attempt to speak of vulnerability but also strength. Warmth and tenderness conflate with irritation and isolation; a glance that seems to say “come close,” can also be a plea to be alone. These images form a continuity of representation that speak of male bonding, friendship and intimacy albeit experienced by men living and loving ninety years apart.
But the photographic image is also lacking in some way; it is too immediate and stark. Ultimately, it is a literal representation of a man in repose. However, once enlarged, printed onto fabric and then meticulously stitched using a myriad of ombre threads, the image becomes veiled and blurred creating a richly patterned cloth. These sleeping men now appear and disappear, floating somewhere indecipherable between threads. And between those threads lies the joy and anguish, terror and pleasure, restlessness and comfort that I have come to know so well by watching men at rest, sleeping and waking. Stitch now envelops them; clouding the image. We look at these bodies as if seeing through tears, with eyes adjusting to the morning light or half closed at the end of the day.
This is the point at which I think the work has just begun so there is no ending to this chronicle. My only certainty is that what has been achieved so far needs to leave this studio and the confines of my desk. All work takes on a different life, meaning and resonance when it leaves the maker; and that is no bad thing. Though I realise that there are two different types of work at play here. I am eager for the stories to be read, and told. But their physical existence never actually leaves or goes anywhere. They reside with me here, on paper and screen. They will also exist elsewhere, in the form of a digital file, or words printed out on paper that will occupy the hands and minds of another reader. But the pictures do leave. I may have a photograph that documents their existence, but this is not about recall; I have an unfathomable feeling about them. ‘The Sleepers’ are packed away and driven to Ruthin Craft Gallery for their onward journey to the ‘Collect’ exhibition in London. I deliver them into the safe hands of Jane Gerrard and Phillip Hughes, but catch myself wiping tears away on the journey home. I am not sure whether these men have left me, or I have left them, but I shall miss them all.
I would like to thank all my family, colleagues and friends who gave me the encouragement to realise the work for this project. In particular, I would like to thank Phillip Hughes and Jane Gerrard at Ruthin Craft Centre for their unstinting support and faith in me, and for giving so generously of their time and professional advice. This work would never have been completed without the support of Arts Council Wales, and the guidance of Iolo Williams who gave me the confidence to challenge my own horizons, and Dr. Sarah Davies, Consultant in Respiratory Medicine at Glan Clywd Hospital, who practises medicine with humour, honesty and humanity; though does not quite realise how much her smiles bring light into dark days. Dewi Lloyd has similarly been hugely generous with his time and I can only marvel at his professional and creative skills, good humour and patience. I would never have recovered sufficiently to make this work without the dedication and affection of Alan and Peter Myerscough, who between them, made me realise the gift and preciousness of life and love. Finally, I would like to dedicate this work to the men in hospital wards with whom I have laughed and cried. Wherever you are, I hope that you have found peace, comfort and rest.
 Gardiner, James, ‘The Private Pictures of Montague Glover 1889-1983,’ Serpents Tail, London, 1992.